That’s so gay..dealing with homophobia at work

Sometimes we can be sat at work and a comment can fly past our ears that takes us back to being 13 years old and in the classroom. Often disguised as banter, casual comments can sting, hurt or put us in a place where we feel excluded, as if we are the outsider and that our differences are merely tolerated at best.

The other week, we were talking casually about a musty smell in the office (turned out to be paint) and we got onto the topic of leaving clothes in the washing machine too long and ending up damp (I know riveting right). My colleague said “it’s something all men do”. Anyway I said “oh I never do that” to which a colleague replied “well you’re not a real man!” Hold up wait a minute, what did you just say should have been my response but instead I just laughed nervously and tried to be witty. It wasn’t till later that I thought hang on, you’ve just singled me out, made fun of me and all in the name of banter. At the time i thought am I being over sensitive, would a sassy reply suffice or if I said “actually what do you mean by that, are you saying my masculinity is not the same because I am gay?” Would that have just been met with defensiveness and “oh it was only a joke don’t take yourself seriously”. As LGBTQI people, sometimes we can make excuses for other people’s ignorance, to brush it aside, to respond wittingly or just brush it off, but sometimes it gets to us, and we need to be honest about that.

Homophobia in the workplace can be blatant and ferocious but more often it’s subtle, disguised as banter or simply used a way of excluding people. How many of us have been sat in work or joined a new team and never have been asked if we are dating/married/have a partner/kids, whilst our straight counterparts this can be the first question asked. Maybe that’s awkwardness or a presumption that because we are gay then we must have a certain lifestyle. Maybe I am over generalising but it’s interesting. In the middle of a conversation someone once said to me, “oh you wouldn’t understand as you’ll never have kids”. Boom, excluded, presumptions made. That might be an innocent comment but the effect screams “you are different”. The workplace like high school wants people to subscribe into their selected roles, to fit into boxes and as a gay person you can think I need to hide who I am to get ahead. To butch it up, to not reveal to much about myself, to be that enigma that all I am known for is being good at my job.

In television it can help to be outwardly camp and be all about the fun. Many a female producer will surround herself with a harem of “outrageous” gay men who hang on her every word and enjoy a bitch and a gossip. Nothing wrong with that, but just make sure you are being true to yourself and not performing to please. So often as gay men we feel the need to perform, to put on a show, to be witty and fabulous and sometimes it’s great and other times we just simply can’t be bothered. Allow people to see a multifaceted version of yourself and allow some vulnerability to shine through. That especially can be hard in the cut throat world of telly but you’ll be surprised how people respond to your true self. Whoever you are, you will always feel more comfortable in work if you are accepted for who you are.

“Oh it’s really obvious you are gay” I heard a month a so ago by a colleague who I was just randomly chatting to about nothing much in particular. Well I am gay I thought should I be ashamed of that? I’ve had friends and colleagues being talked about in the opposite way “oh you’d never know he was gay” “it’s such a shame he’s so straight acting”. It’s as if some people’s ideas of what gay people is narrowed to certain stereotypes and in a way that makes them feel more comfortable.

An old boss used to call me, different, theatrical, and proud and any other 1950s euphemism for gay. I think what really irked him was that I was secure with myself, I was unapologetic for who I was, I was quite a private person but never ashamed of who I was. My openness felt like a threat to him, particularly when the other gay men and women in the office kept themselves very much to themselves and kept their private lives very private. I guess I have no poker face, wear my heart on my sleeve and throw myself into situations in a positive lively manner. But I have always been open and honest with who i am. What I came to realise was the issue was his issue, I haven’t changed, I’m not ashamed and I’m confident and he couldn’t accept that. Hey ho shake it off!

Sometimes with other gay men in the office it can feel like territory is being marked, the “only gay in the office” syndrome. I’ve seen it where men are either lusted and dissected or dismissed because they don’t conform. As gay people we need to accept and acknowledge people for who they are. It’s equally as damaging to put our fellow gays into boxes that aren’t really them. A colleague introduced themselves to me as “the queen of the gay mafia” once which made me giggle a bit and I replied hi, but I thought this was about saying who’s boss, and reminding me that I was new. It’s interesting as I’ve never really been bothered by cliques, I like people, I get on with people but I don’t need to be part of a gang to feel secure. Sometimes that goes against the grain in the office environment.

If you hear things that offend you, make you feel uncomfortable or exclude you then do speak out. Acknowledge that that comment has offended you. Educate the person. I have said “thank you for your casual homophobia” a couple of times and that’s thrown people. If people are saying things that are about you or about LGBTQI people then speak up if you can, explain why you find this offensive. I had a debate with someone once who was saying “how gay” a TV presenter was and how he “behaved in a really gay way”. I pulled them up on that and made them see that they were using gay In a really negative way and by describing this person as offensive they were saying the same about me. You may not feel comfortable about saying something directly, but make a note of the comments, find someone you can trust and talk about it with them, speak to HR about it as there will be procedures and policies in place to deal with this. The wonderful Stonewall who do amazing work have a whole section on their site about this,
http://www.stonewall.org.uk/at_work/individuals/workplace_discrimination/default.asp

As more and more people come out in senior work roles Tim Cook from Apple being the latest, this can only send a positive message. Look for role models in your organisation, chat to them about how they got ahead, talk to them about how they coped with things, and what spurred them on. I think it’s always important to have a role model or a mentor. If you can get one then it’s worth it.

Always be your self, be unapologetic for who you are. Focus on your work and doing a good job. Appreciate what’s important to you and you will find your way.

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